They took lots of pictures in the grey house back when pictures were black and white. Recently, I told my son, Back when I was a kid the whole world was black and white. I saw him hesitate, just for a second, as if he almost believed me.
The grey house, all two stories of it, stood sentinel on a patchy hill by the highway with its windows for eyes. My crooked curtain beyond the bottom porch was a winking lid. The lights from the highway flashed at the window around the sly curtain. I imagined the lives of the occupants of the cars that whizzed by at all hours. The vast numbers of people who operated whizzing metal vehicles all through the night was astounding. Was every place that someone needed to go, always further than the distance they could walk it?
In the daylight hours Id seen a tractor-trailer take down a collie dog, and assorted other wildlife were smashed into roadkill. Id seen and heard vehicles struck by other vehicles. Dont let Kimmy outside! This one she dont have to see. Blood all over the windshield. I dont think this guys makin it.
The people victims were carried away by ambulances. The animals were flattened until they disappeared entirely. I stopped expecting little animal ambulances and animal stretchers to appear on the highway a long time ago.
I saw something stupid on television when I was eight years old. That would never happen, I told my mother. The news isnt true. Its dumb.
Whats so dumb? My mother asked me.
All that for one person? All those fire trucks? All those people? Its only one little kid trapped in a house but a TV person comes and they go to all that trouble to rescue one kid with that big ladder! Thats a crowd of people to help one person! It could never happen, Mommy!
It happened. It happens all the time. People help other people whether its one person or ten people whore trapped.
When I looked out my window from inside my room, I saw Eileens weathered porch with its lovely expanse of peeling grey boards jutting out from under my window outside in an interesting linear perspective...Later in my life, upon seeing Van Goghs painting of his room, I would think of the boards of the porch that seemed to distortedly run away from my view. The image of them would remain, as many images do, indelibly imprinted in my head like a poster.
Eileen lived upstairs and greeted these boards daily to reach her door. Jumping spiders siesta-ed around the porch rails and by the bicycle and old plant pots. One bright day I sat on her porch step thinking about the place between nothing and everything; staring at air particles. She came round the corner and greeted me full face and we both looked away. She hoisted up the steps, getting some spiders to hopping. I got an eye-level view as she passed me, of her oversized ankles and legs decorated with purple lines. I couldnt not look at them. Eileen shuffled up past me turtle-like as ever across the fine boards, her colorful dress swaying. A puff of white-blonde hair framed her face as she smiled my way with cherry red lips.
Her apartment lay spread out on our ceilings like a dark secret. If I could see her things, familiarize myself with the things she surrounded herself with, only then could I, only then would I, know her.
I never did know her. There was that one Halloween...
On that Halloween, Id have my chance! I stood on the topmost part of her narrow hall stairs and knocked. It was incredibly dark. But I sparkled. I was wearing a pink princess mask with glitter for eyeshadow above the eyeslits. The door opened a crack, revealing her red mouth. I was transformed. I was Mel Blanc, Dr. Seuss, Elvis, Edna St. Vincent Millay- princess of words, able to leap entire sentences with a single sound! Halloween! When you can buy painted-on pink store-bought smiles. Instead of trick or treat I said nothing. My mask smiled.
A swollen hand came through the crack with Chiclets gum. The yellow packet fell neatly into the hollow of my plastic pumpkin.
I strained to see into the room behind her. Was that a stove?! It was crow-black, clunky and so quirky with its funny curving pipe, it reminded me of a type Id seen illustrated in a storybook. Eileen lived in a cartoon kitchen! Smiling at her doughy hand, she closed her door till it clicked. I heard a clasp latch. Already the princess was cracked at the staple that held the elastic to the butter-yellow hair. Insanely, the mask smiled. Beneath it, I exhaled hot breath from my no-expression face.
My father was a foreman at a factory that dyed patterns onto cloth! Sometimes he brought home flawed material that the factory would only have disposed of. My father had his arms full with bolts of cloths with the so-called misprints on them. Who was the judge of flaws and mistakes? I scanned them before they could disappear into the cellar with the rest. He was walking fast.
Greyed-down colors where the dye had not saturated the cloth, zig zags that were not lightning sharpbut foggy instead, double struck anchors laid one upon another were humorous. ... Teacups, cornucopias, vegetables... were struck over each other, overlapping where they werent intended to overlap.
My father made pattern and color when he left for work! how many fathers could do that?
I followed him under Eileens hall staircase, where the indoor entrance to the cellar was. The bundles would be piled with the rest of the flawed pieces. To me they were awed pieces. I would follow him; I wanted to see what we had in storage! My fathers footfalls on the wooden steps were heavy and sure, and the staircase creaked in protest. I froze halfway down...
Whats that? I asked him; knowing full well what had leapt from one lopsided clothes barrel to another.
Just a rat, Booby. Theyre more afraid o you than you are o them.
I change my mind Daddy! I hightailed it back up to the dark linoleumed hall from which Id come; listening to my fathers hooting laughter follow him into the cellar.
There was enough in the cellar to interest the rats; Id never seen them venture upstairs. Id seen them run, however, near the sandbank where Sheri and I played house on a tumble of boulders. It was a dumping place for heaps of junk. We balanced a hollowed-out TV on a flat rock, situated some chipped lamps with no lightbulbs in them...and we had a house. Wearing my mothers short curly wigs, we spoke in contrived accents and became Myrtle and Gerta, proper southern ladies who drank invisible tea with upturned pinky fingers. When Sheri, or Myrtle, was not available for play, I chatted with invisible neighbor ladies...
Hey Myrtle dahlin. Did y all hear about Mistah Jones? Oh, yeah child he was seen with that floozy yestahdy!
Sheri adjusted her much-hated everyday glasses; the ones we called cats eye glasses. They turned up in points on the outer edges. Teachers and strangers alike went on about how cute they were. I knew Sheri hung her hair in her eyes on purpose to hide her glasses. I liked her glasses too, for my own reasons, but didnt let on. They did look pretty funny when she wore the short curly wiglike the character Cher played on TV when she played the laundromat gossip lady. Maybe this is who we imitated so often on the rock pile. The wig I wore was black and also short, and curly. It was hard stuffing my own unruly black mane under its inner meshing. Sometimes my hair felt like a horses tail.
Gerta that aint the half of it darlin! I hear she drinks and gambles at the track!
Oh Myrtle child! Say it aint so!
Its so darlin. And Mrs. Temple! Have you-all heard?
We adlibbed and fingered the strands of costume jewelry we wore over the silky scarves and polyester shift dresses. Between the pile of stuff in my room and our mothers jewelry boxes, we were never at a loss for costumes or props.
I done heard it alright Myrtle. Poor woman. All true. The mailman tol me. Its true as sure as Maisies hair is blonde!
Now girl, youre talkin ta Myrtle! And Maisies roots are dark, girl!
I do declay-er! Tell me more honey, and hand me that salad there, yall.
Dandelion leaves made fine pretend lettuce we washed in the sink strainer wed found. Rotten wood made chunky white chicken for our stews. We pretended to prepare and then eat our feast over gab sessions. Afterward we swept the lot beside the boulders with straw tied to a broken tree arm.
The boulder playhouse was a halfway point between Sheris house and mine. I was allowed to walk to her house, two houses away, up the hill. My father sometimes surprised me by showing up on the ride-on lawnmower (with the blade up) and giving me a ride home for supper. I enjoyed the bumpy ride over the pot-holed pavement but always I imagined myself falling and slipping under the lawnmower.
When youre that age, your world is the one you make. You have no way to know that when you get older it gets blacker and whiter and you cherish more those boulders of the past- those shades of grey. The colors you make later. That Sheri would have three kids, we couldnt have guessed. That I have three kids, that she would get multiple sclerosis, we didnt know that either.
In shades of grey, between light and dark, you saw the color of my childhood home and the stones in coastal castles too. You saw the color of my best friend Sheris eyes, the world that was black and white TV. You saw home.
She and her ten yr. old son Jeremy snip fabric from bits
in her cellar and sew elves. She has been published in Kaleidoscope
and is a frequent contributor to Parting Gifts; March St. Press. Her
next piece to be published is Harbinger, a fictional story
about crows and about a woman who finds an autistic girl in the woods.
It will be out in July 2001.
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